Tag Archive: Blog


A Christmas Post

A lot’s happened since October. I started two new jobs — one full-time (communications specialist for a national nonprofit) and the other part-time (senior editor at a global hip-hop journal). Though the former, more so than the latter, leaves me less time and energy to blog here, I couldn’t be happier. With both positions, I make a living doing what I love: writing. And they help me get my work to a larger audience, even if — at times — with the the full-time gig, I’m a ghostwriter.

They’re also the reason this Christmas is special, why it’s the first one — in a long time — of which I’m excited. It took me working a regular schedule to appreciate this week off. I took advantage of the break and knocked out my holiday shopping before the last minute rush. I also baked an eggplant parmesan, worked with my wife on a gluten-free veggie lasagna and assisted her with baking four 7-Up cakes and dozens of muffins (the 7-Up replaces baking powder, helping the cake to rise).

This morning, I’m looking forward to the chicken and waffle breakfast with Kirk Franklin’s gospel Christmas album on repeat. I’m looking forward to sipping hot cocoa and to eating dinner at my parent’s with my wife, siblings and my niece, Anicia — who, as I’m writing this, fills the house with her sweet sounds, bugging “Nana” and “Poppa” for attention.

(This is Anicia’s  fourth Christmas and the third she’ll actually remember). I’m also looking forward to dessert at my aunt and uncle’s, hanging with my cousins and some family my wife and I haven’t seen since our wedding nearly two years ago.

In addition to my new jobs, I started my newsletter, The Hourglass Flow, of which I snatched the title from a friend’s poem inspired by MF Doom’s verse on De La Soul’s “Rock Co.Kane Flow“: “…to write all night long/the hourglass is still slow/flow from hellborn/to free power like Wilco”. (Check out the back issue and the holiday sale I got going with said buddy that will continue through New Years, then subscribe to the newsletter).

Besides inspiring the title, Doom’s verse also alludes to the love and energy  we bloggers put into our posts, especially since we’re willing “to write all night long” because we have something to say. Every time I wonder how long I’ll keep this up, I think about how fortunate I am to have a platform that promoted several authors and helped a film student raise funds for his feature-length thesis film.

I’m fortunate for a platform to post my articles and essays that would otherwise sit somewhere, collecting dust. I’m grateful to have this platform, without which my ramblings would stay idle voices echoing in my head.

So here’s a short post, checking in, and a long way of wishing everyone happy holidays. I’m excited for what the new year will bring such as, among other things, a piece I wrote on an amazing photographer that will debut in the next Words Beats & Life hip hop journal. I’ll keep you posted on when the new issue is out. Also, if you have anything you want promoted in The Hourglass Flow, hit me at nyckencole@hotmail.com with “Newsletter Item” in the subject line, and it’ll go out in next month’s newsletters (it’s bimonthly). Peace!

How Zoe Valentine Works

(PHOTO: Zoe Valentine)

Editor’s note: This is part two of an on-going series about successful bloggers and their habits. Read  part one here and click here to read part three.

A lot’s happened in the nearly five years Zoe Valentine’s entertained and informed readers with her blog about what she calls “the most mundane of things” in her daily life.

Those adventures include the Missouri-transplant apartment-hunting in New York City, falling in love, and leaving an economic consulting gig in the Big Apple—fiancé in tow—for an executive administrative support position in the Urbana-Champaign, Illinois-area. Those posts and more gained her a wider readership and caught the attention thrice of web administrators at the popular online publishing platform that hosts her blog Zoe Says.

Not bad for a self-professed introvert. “Having an easily findable online identity is sometimes really scary to me,” the Louisiana-native says in a recent interview. “It’s not just my name, it’s that all of these personal observations and facts about myself are just…out there.”

Even if Valentine tried, this age of smartphones and social networking sites makes it impossible to avoid an online presence. “Already today’s smartphones used by teenagers to text friends have as much computing power as the Apollo spacecraft that traveled to the moon in 1969,” the husband-and-wife research team Ayesha & Parag Khanna tell tech blogger Kyle Munkittrick, of Pop Bioethics.

The Khannas are part of a research and advisory group at the Hybrid Reality Institute, which explores human-technology co-evolution and its implications for global business, society and politics. According to their book, Hybrid Reality, the “balance of innovation” eclipses the military “balance of power”.

The Khannas note this trend will advance for another decade. “Hewlett Packard estimates that by 2015, there will be one trillion devices connected to the Internet constantly recording and sharing information,” the Khannas says. “By 2020, we will literally live in technology.”

Another thing that makes Zoe Valentine’s online presence inevitable are current hiring practices. “In this era, [an] online presence is the best way [a] company can check your…background,” according to Dheeraj thedijje’s post at the tech blog Intelligent Computing. An online presence gives a company a sense of how well a potential employee uses technology, how well she/he writes, and how well the individual conducts themselves publicly.

(PHOTO: Zoe Valentine) That’s the smile, thanks to Zoe’s fiance Kevin .

Valentine built her presence through blogging, which resulted from her friends’ fascination with how she tells stories, either in person or through her narrative emails.

“I had always thought I would go into film or video editing…which is another medium for telling stories,” says Valentine, who earned a BA in Film & Media Studies at the University of Rochester. “But so far it hasn’t panned out that way. I wrote my first post about hunting for apartments in New York City with Craigslist, and the blogging seed was planted.”

Her most memorable and successful post is “The Obligatory Courtesy Smile,” a hilarious post about workplace etiquette. According to Valentine’s piece, this gesture is a “weird smile—sometimes an accompanying nod—that you give people…where you flatten your lips and smile tightly as you pass each other by.”

This post resonated with fellow bloggers. “How about the little ‘wave’ that you give along with the nod as you pass by someone,” writes Nikitaland, who blogs about her dog Nikita.

Think that gesture’s bad? It could be worst, according to Ugogo, a vegetarian and aspiring actress. “What’s really awkward,” she writes, “is seeing that person twice.”

“Courtesy Smile” was also a hit with WordPress administrators, who selected that post among their eight favorites to showcase, or, as it’s called on WordPress, “Freshly Pressed”—which results in a major traffic surge. “Courtesy Smile,” posted July 2011, grossed 12,915 hits in one day.

That post introduced me to Zoe Valentine, who I’ve followed since. And get this. “Courtesy Smile” marked the blogger’s third time being “Freshly Pressed”. The first (November 2010) recorded 2,065 hits, while her second (May 2011) clocked 4,195 hits. “It’s been an absolute honor each and every time,” Valentine says. “The thrill never gets old.”

What makes posts like “Courtesy Smile” successful is that—whether Valentine intended—they adopt what’s called the sitcom format. Like sitcoms, Valentine’s blog posts—whether about chucking a microwave for counter space, how she chooses her drugstores, or why she stopped listening to the radio—are short bursts of enjoyment that include the hero, anti-hero, love interest and buddy.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

“Since sitcoms are only 30 minutes long, it is essential that the plot line be fairly tight and resolvable,” writes Winifred Fordham Metz, a media librarian and contributing writer to How Stuff Works, an award-winning website of explanations of how the world works.

In his article “How Sitcoms Work,” Metz adds, “Successful plots will typically fall within a family or workplace setting or some combination of the two.” In “Courtesy Smile,” Zoe’s the hero (for tackling the situations she encounters), the gesturing office mates are the anti-hero, and Valentine’s love interest/buddy is her fiancé Kevin, who demonstrates the gesture in a photo.

Now, here’s how Valentine works. “Sometimes I’m hit with a snippet of inspiration from the most mundane of things in my daily life,” she says. “A funny thought or personal quirk about myself will hit me, and I will whip out my iPhone and enter it into my Notepad.”

(PHOTO: rapgenius.com)

She gets her need to write things down from her parents, who are both prolific writers. “My mom is more poetic and she uses her writing to inspire and encourage others,” Valentine says. “My dad is currently working on publishing a self-help book that he has worked on for a very long time.”

Of her parents’ writing habits, she adds, “They write every single day, even if it’s just personal notes, thoughts, feelings.”

While Valentine’s not writing every day, she’s just as disciplined. “If I feel it’s been too long since I’ve put out a blog post, I’ll refer to my snippets of inspiration, put the idea into a draft, and develop it into a full post,” she says. She also responds to WordPress’s weekly photo challenges, which get her creative juices going.

Lately, her faucet stays flowing. “More often than not, I sit down at my computer with a strong idea of what I need to flesh out,” says Valentine, noting that articles online make up majority of her daily reading.

Those days when she’s dry, she’s learned not to beat herself up. “I went ten months without a new post between last year and this year as I had started a very demanding new job,” she recalls of the ups and downs writers experience. “As I’ve gotten older and developed my blogging muscle, I find I can’t stay way.”

Neither can Charles Gulotta (aka bronxboy55), a long-time  ZoeSays reader. “What a great blog this is, Zoe,” writes the veteran freelance writer and author. “It’s like a candy store that changes with every visit.”

And that’s key to successful bloggers—return readers. “Checking spelling and grammar is…a key to getting people to come back and read your blog,” Valentine’s advice to new bloggers. “Misspelled words or poor grammar (unless it’s ironic) keeps the reader from really delving in and getting lost in whatever you have to say.”

Another advice is to stay open to inspiration in its many forms. For Zoe Valentine, it’s a song line, scene from a favorite movie or TV show, a story line from a novel, and other bloggers. “That’s the beauty of writing blog posts,” she says, “anything can be fully realized in some fashion.”

The Obvious

(ARTWORK: Zach Wrup)

Never bet against your wife.

My cousin Alvin tried to teach me that through his marriage crash course. “Love”–Alvin’s pet name for his wife, Natasha–”is always right,” he once told me. “Even when she’s wrong, she’s right.”

Conventional wisdom tells guys being “wrong” is better than sleeping on the couch. You’d think I’d heed that advice and those of  Hugo Schwyzer, whose article (“Why Women Are More Often Right“) points out that women’s experiences, in addition to giving them “standpoint privilege” in arguments with men, also contribute to their perception of things.

“In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status,” writes Schwyzer, a professor who’s taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He continues:

Class and sex and race and faith are some of—but surely not the only—prisms through which we see and interpret the world…. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: The class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself.

Tosin’s macro focus trumps my micro vision anytime. That’s why I won’t ever doubt her again, especially after what happened this morning. I put my Ninja blender against her Nutri Bullet. I was going to prove my point that the Ninja made better smoothies than the Bullet.

My wife, Tosin, thought otherwise a few nights before. So, this morning, I used the Ninja to make an Energy Elixir smoothie after the gym–throwing in two handfuls of kale, 1 frozen banana, 1 cup of red grapes (stems and all), 1 cored apple, 1/8 cup of walnuts, water, then let the blades rip for 5 minutes.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) l-r: Nutri Bullet, Ninja blender, and my delicious Energy Elixir smoothie.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) l-r: Nutri Bullet, Ninja blender, and my delicious Energy Elixir smoothie.

What happened afterwards was disappointing. The Ninja, for all its roar and grind, left me a pulpy blob of sweet green stuff. I mean it was sad the way it sat there–lumpy in some parts, runny in others.

Thinking of that debate, when I ran down what seemed obvious (my claims that the Bullet’s tight two-blade system was no match for the Ninja’s three-tiered sabers), I realized my mistake. “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” the late Arthur Conan Doyle, physician and writer, once stated.

Looking back, I see our debate was more than about kitchen appliances and smooth juice. Tosin’s never been one to go with what seems obvious. In fact, her analytical mind combs through “fact”, crunching and verifying all relevant data, before accepting or rejecting the seemingly obvious. She keeps me on my toes–something I appreciate, though I don’t always show it.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

I’m an artist, which means she expects more from me. That includes me not settling for what seems obvious. After all, that’s how the late-Lebanese artist and writer Khalil Gibran described art: “a step from what is obvious and well-known toward what is arcane and concealed.”

With this morning’s experiment, the art came when I looked at the Nutri Bullet–its bright teeth smiling, as if to say, “Let me handle that.” Which it did, turning what was barely edible into some holy nectar I believe the ancient Greek gods sipped, lounging at a lake while nibbling a platter of grapes, figs and juicy meat chunks.

I can see that ancient Greek sun glossing their olive skin, their perfect bodies glinting in my workout goal horizon.

I will never doubt my wife again. And, instead, be grateful when she’s right–all the time.

DRIFT, A Cyber Conversation on Process

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

EDITOR’S NOTE: My friend, poet and educator Curtis Crisler, recently taught my debut poetry collection, DRIFT, to his students at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. He emailed me his students’ questions, which resulted in this cyber conversation:

What did you say to the girl who approached you to apologize for her behavior towards you?

All I could do was accept her apology. She caught me off-guard because I hadn’t seen, or thought of, that person in so long. It’s always refreshing, though, when you have encounters like that, when someone from your past goes out of their way to try to make things right. All I could do was appreciate that moment and accept her apology.

Do you think the apology had anything to do with your success?

No. This person didn’t know I was a poet. I’m not on TV and I’ve been on the radio (a few people heard me on NPR, but that’s it). She didn’t know then what I was doing with my life. Again, I think she realized the opportunity to make things right and took it.

How do you feel about your first collection of poems?  Are you happy with how they ended up, or do you wish you could change some things?

I’m always going to want to change things. I guess that’s the nature of writers. When I wrote DRIFT, I did my best with what I knew then. That’s all we can do. Since Willow Books published DRIFT, I completed grad school with way more knowledge of the craft than I had when I wrote those poems. While I would change some things in that collection, I’m glad it’s the way it is. I look at it as a marker for where I was at that time. I’m currently shopping around a new manuscript for what I hope will be a second book. It’s tentatively titled POINT BLANK. In that manuscript, I’m working with a whole different set of techniques that I’m excited about. I’m excited to continue to grow as a writer.

(PHOTO: Agent Retro)

How did you come to the title, Drift?

I went through the manuscript, looking for a poem that I would title the collection after. When I came across “Drift,” I realized that, just how the speaker was drifting through that moment, the speaker also drifts throughout the collection. My goal was to take the reader from love, to social commentary, to poems about my family, to brotherhood, and so on. I wanted to bring the reader inside the speaker’s head, to have him/her drift along and experience those moments the way the speaker did. DRIFT sets up that expectation.

What inspired you to write “Blackberry Speaks/Txt?”

I had a BlackBerry then, and I was sick of hearing about the iPhone. I’ve since upgraded to an Android phone. But I thought about how the BlackBerry had its heyday as a device once used by state and federal lawmakers, businessmen and women, etc. And in a blink, it became outdated. Then I got to thinking about our elderly, who hold so much wisdom, but we miss out because we think they don’t know what they’re talking about. The idea is, “They’ve lived their lives. What they know about mine?” So I wanted to explore that through the voice of an unappreciated BlackBerry. I wanted it to be humorous and serious all at once.

What was it that made you want to be a poet?

My first encounter with poetry was a traumatic experience. There’s nothing more traumatic than knowing that if you couldn’t recite the assigned poem, you’d be on the wall during recess, watching your friends have fun. Once I got over my first encounter, I realized poetry wasn’t so bad. I wrote it for the girls in high school, then later became serious about it during undergrad. The more I read, the more I appreciated the craft, the more I saw what was possible—the subjects I could tackle, the various literary devices I could use, the different ways I could connect with people. Cait Johnson, a former mentor of mine, once said: “Poetry’s a shortcut to empathy.” I like to think that, as poets, we’re helping to shape society’s conscience. While that’s ambitious, and at the risk of romanticizing poetry, I think there’s something to be said about the fact that people turn to poems to celebrate love and remember those who pass on.

When did you know you were a poet?

I’d have to say it was when the older writers, who I saw as legends in D.C.’s arts community, pulled me aside and red-inked my paper. These were writers who didn’t waste their time with folks who weren’t serious. The fact that they saw or heard something in my work, enough to look it over and offer their critiques, still stays with me. They were passing their wisdom on to me. That’s not to be taken lightly. Some of those writers have moved on to other cities. The ones I do see, I always make sure I tell them—even nearly a decade later—how much I appreciated what they did for me.

(PHOTO: Heather Conley) The late-poet Ai

Who are your favorite poets and why?  Which writer was your biggest inspiration when you first began to write?

Whoa! I’ll start with my inspiration, which was Sonia Sanchez. I had her book, SHAKE LOOSE MY SKIN. It was a poetry collection that included her micro fiction. I had to read that book a few times to really appreciate it. I initially picked it up because another writer told me Ms. Sanchez was someone whose work I should know. So when I was able to appreciate SHAKE LOOSE, she showed that poems could both be a bullhorn for justice and quiet as a whisper in a lover’s ear. I loved her range and what she was capable of talking about in her work. Other writers that inspire me are Yusef Komunyakaa (I’m still in love with NEON VERNACULAR), Patricia Smith, Ai (she was my introduction to persona poems), Martin Espada, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns (I still go back to VELOCITIES), Sherman Alexie, and the list goes on.

At the top of that heap is Tim Seibles, who was my mentor both the first and last residency of my MFA program. What he admired about Jimi Hendrix and Sade Adu, he applied it to his poems. Just as Hendrix and Adu kept working at their craft until the product was seamless, Tim works at a poem ‘til all of it sings loud. There’s no weak lines in Tim’s work. His ability to use humor to tackle serious social issues is a skill I still admire. He’s been called the master of the “tickle-punch” poetry. He uses humor to trick his readers into dropping their guard, then he punches them with the message. When their guards go up, he tickles them again, then punches them with the message. He does that over and over. Because of him, I try to max out my poem’s full potential every time I write.

What moments in your life were your biggest influences for your writings?

The influences came from time with my family and from past romantic relationships. I write more about my family in my new manuscript. In DRIFT, they make brief appearances because I wanted to capture D.C., at least how I experienced that city. The biggest influence is people watching. I do it with a poet-friend of mine, Derrick Weston Brown. We’re always interested in the nonverbal communication between strangers. It’s a great way to get material for new pieces—that is after reading other writers, of course.

(PHOTO: jet200nyc)

I really like your poem 3a.m.—what inspired that poem?

Thanks! “3a.m.” was inspired by an ex-girlfriend, who had it in her mind we were going to get married. There’s the irony (she broke up with me). But I thought about our late night caper for food. I remembered how good it felt just being with her. That moment at the late night diner somehow burned itself into my mind. I didn’t know then that I’d write a poem about that night. I guess writers have those moments, when we’re sponges, soaking up every detail of a moment. Then years later, a song or smell brings those details out and you’re far enough away from that moment that you can write it.

It seems much of your poetry is symmetric in regards to lines per stanza.  Why is that so?

At the time I wrote those poems, I would have told you it was for uniformity of stanzas. But I recently found out I have OCD, particularly, “purely obsessional” Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (some of those symptoms include intrusive thoughts and psychological compulsions). I think that has something to do with what my wife sees as me being neurotic, where I’m obsessed with the order of things. Tim Seibles helped me break out of that. He said, “Bruh, you’re poems don’t have to be neat. It’s OK if your stanzas are a little messy.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Tryst

Where do you like to write your poetry?

Anywhere there’s noise—coffee shops (especially with the cappuccino machines whining and music spooling through hanging speakers), classrooms, restaurants (I got inspired by an Al Green song at the CiCi’s pizza buffet), outside on any street corner, etc.

Before writing, do you have certain rituals or certain things you always do?  Example: Where you write, certain notebook/computer, etc?  Or do you just jot down ideas as they come to you?

I tend to write in my head, at first. I’ll have an idea and let it incubate. Sometimes I’ll share that idea with Derrick and our conversation about it will help me figure out how to execute it. Other times, it incubated in my head, with a few lines coming to me. I’ll let it build until I have to put it on the page. Once I get it all out, I put the poem away, then come back to it after a few weeks or months. I try to put as much distance as I can between me and the poem (that’s my process now; it wasn’t when I wrote DRIFT). In the past, I sent raw work to friends for suggestions. Now, I distance myself from the poems by coming back to them after a few weeks or months. That’s when my mind’s fresh and I can play around with stanzas—moving them around, starting the poem with the last, second, or next to last stanza. Other times, I’ll ask myself questions: how much of the story is in this poem? Will someone coming to this poem without the information I have understand what’s going on in the poem? I also have the voices of people I’ve workshopped with—former mentors, friends, etc. I anticipate the questions they would ask if they saw the poem. Once I get it the poem to where I’m satisfied, I send it to a few trustful readers. I say trustful because these are people  who are honest with me. They’ll let me know what’s working and what I need to work on. They also tell me when I have to scrap it and start over.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

I love the titles to your poems, so how do you come up with them because when reading some of them they made me stop and think, where did he get this from?  (After reading the poem).

Thank you. I don’t like titling my poems before I’ve finished a draft. So I’ll write a poem, then go through it, looking for the title. Sometimes the title answers a question posed by the poem. The title may set up the reader’s expectation. Either way, the title is doing work. That’s the goal.

When writing a poem, do you have a set message that you are trying to get across to your readers, or do you just write and see what your finished poems turn out to be?

I usually have a message or something I want to communicate. That’s the idea I mentioned in response to a previous question. Once I get the idea, I have to figure out how I’m going to approach it. I look at the poem as a vehicle that’s going to help me drive my point home. That’s something I’ve learned from Tim Seibles and the older writers I’ve workshopped with. With that said, I do let the poem surprise me. If I realize I’m forcing the poem to go in one direction, I ease up and let it take me somewhere else. I figure if I’m excited about the process, that makes the reader’s  journey to that message just as exciting.

Did you ever worry about legal issues when you wrote about drugs?

No. I never did drugs. I hung out with people who did them. I never judged them. Plus, I was not incriminating myself or them. If I mention names, it’s first names only. And I make sure they’re common names J

Was it difficult to talk about sexual things?

Not at all. I’m not the only person in the world that loves sex. I figure there are other people out there feel the same way I do. My goal as a writer is to make sure the reader experiences my poems in a way that makes him/her recall their own experiences and bring up memories they thought they’d forgotten. If I do that, then that’s where I’ve connected with the reader. That’s always my goal.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

What do you do when you run out of ideas?

I read as much as I can—both in and outside my genres (poetry and creative nonfiction). I go to museums. I spend time with my wife, in-laws, and my family. The whole point is to live. Experience new things. The poems will come. But, in the meantime, I’m in sponge mode.

What do you think about when you write your poetry, or what do you feel?

Unlike some poets I’ve heard say they get a line or two, I get an image. If a scent or song recalls a memory, I see what happened during that moment, which heightens my senses. Ask my wife, when she sees me in that moment, I’m usually staring into space. But, to me, I’m briefly reliving that moment. I soak out all the details, then start to write.

Have you written poetry all (or most of) your life?  What was your first exposure to it?

I’m 32. I’ve written poetry, seriously, for 14 years. In total, I’d say I’ve been writing for 16 years—that’s me including the silly poems I wrote when I started. My first exposure was in 4th grade. My English teacher, Ms. Garrison, had us read and recite poems. It was mandatory. If we couldn’t recite it, we didn’t get recess, hence, the traumatic experience I mentioned earlier.

When I studied poetry again in middle school, I fell in love with the rhyme and rhythm. Now that I don’t rhyme anymore in my poems, the rhythm stayed with me. I love rhythm in a poem.

Was your journey to becoming a published poet a difficult one?

That journey required me to learn patience. I had to develop tough skin and know that rejection would be a part of that process. But rejection is good, because it makes it possible to appreciate when things come through. Rejection’s also good because it humbles you. It’s a constant reminder that what you’re trying to do is going to take some work.

(ARTWORK: Derrick Weston Brown)

When you first began to write poetry, did you feel like you were constrained?  If so, what did you do to free yourself?

What constrained me in the beginning was meter. That’s how I learned poetry. I wrote sonnets and other forms. While I enjoyed that, I felt like the meter and form wasn’t allowing me to say what I wanted to say. I’m not against all forms. I actually like the villanelle, bop (an African American form), ghazal, gigan (another African American form), and pantoum.

But I didn’t feel like the sonnet allowed me to say what I really wanted to say (there are some formalist poets who’ll disagree with me, and that’s fine J). It wasn’t until I read Langston Hughes’ later works, along with Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez, that I discovered free verse. I loved the freedom. But, with that freedom, comes great responsibility. Free verse may look easy, but it’s hard. Since you’re not writing in form, it’s easy for someone to argue that what you’re writing is not a poem. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing anecdotes instead of poems. With free verse, you have to consider a lot of poetic devices—is there rhythm and alliteration? Are my lines sharp, do they snap? Does this poem go beyond the moment? Is it bigger than the moment? What’s the takeaway from this?

It’s just so many things to consider. That’s why reading writers who write free verse well helps reinforce those literary devices that really make the poem sing.

What inspired you to write “Quasimodo in NYC?”

If you’re familiar with the story about the hunchback of Notre Dame, then you know it’s really a tale about unrequited love. We’ve all been there—you like someone who doesn’t feel the same way about you. That’s what makes Quasimodo’s story so universal. Before I met my wife, I went through a Quasimodo moment when I kept running into women who couldn’t return what I felt for them. This poem was about a particular woman who I thought had the same feelings for me that I had for her. Anyway, when it wasn’t so, I went for a walk. We both met up at an annual writer’s conference that New York City hosted that year. I wrote the poem through Quasimodo’s persona because I connected with the hunchback. After a few rejections, you don’t feel so attractive.

Rejoicing in the Church of Poetry

(PHOTO: Steven Pinker)

I’m coming off a high after graduation last month. I finished the Stonecoast M.F.A. Low-Residency Program at the University of Southern Maine, a two-year journey I started for time to write and complete another manuscript to shop around.

It allowed me to expand my network, see Maine (a place I otherwise would not have visited), and to work with National Book Award Finalist Tim Seibles. While he was the hook, Stonecoast introduced me to other faculty members with invaluable insights: Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo, Scott WolvenAnnie Finch, David Anthony Durham, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Cait Johnson.

That high, in part, resulted from my last residency experience—where I spoke on a panel about third semester projects, introduced Tim Seibles before his reading and Q&A, conducted an hour-long seminar on collaborations, and got an amazing intro from Tim at the Graduating Student Reading. My wife, parents, and sister flew in, met the faculty, and fellow Stonecoasters.

I rode that high back to D.C., determined that nothing would kill it—not even Alexandra Petri’s Washington Post column “Is Poetry Dead?,” which dumped Poetry in a hospice. “Can a poem still change anything?” she wrote. “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” That most people I encounter share Petri’s sentiment doesn’t surprise me. In fact, the anti-poetry comments bombard me: from my dad constantly asking how writers feed themselves, to “good for you” responses after people hear I’m a published poet, to the forced smile my wife’s sorority sister gave me when she found out what an M.F.A. (Masters of Fine Arts) was and what I studied.

I shook my head after a poetry buddy told me about an unsuccessful spoken word artist who recently said, “I don’t do that poetry shit anymore.” When the anti-poets spew their rhetoric, I’m grateful for this excerpt of Donald Hall’s 1989 essay, “Death to the Death of Poetry”:

After college many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don’t we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets.

The Church of Poetry ain’t short on hallelujahs—not when poetry’s still read at weddings and funerals, not when people turn to poets or attempt to write their own verse on Valentine’s Day or anytime they declare their love for someone special. Could it be what Cait Johnson once said, that “poetry is a shortcut to empathy,” and that “poetry gets at the soul faster”?

My soul sambaed the evening I watched a couple wait for a table at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets in D.C. Attempting to woo his wife, the husband pulled a random poetry book off the shelf, an action prompted by his wife’s question some time before: “Why don’t you read me poetry?”

After reading a few poems aloud, he said, “This is really good.” He bought the book, then, hearing the author was present, asked the poet to pose with him for a photo. When the host called their name, the husband shook the poet’s hand and said that book will help their marriage.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) Students in the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s After-School Writing Club.

The gospel doesn’t stop there. I’d love to take Alexandra Petri to Hart Middle School in D.C.’s most neglected community (the Congress Heights neighborhood in the city’s southeast quadrant). Every week, she’d see kids, who thought they didn’t like poetry, laughing as they scribbled their raps.

She’d see a 7th grader sweat each line of his poem about going to visit his dad’s grave that day after school. She’d see an 8th grader writing about her dual heritages (a Jamaican dad and Panamanian mom).

If after all that, Petri said, “That’s nice, but shouldn’t they be doing something more practical,” I’d turn her attention to a 2007 interview, where Bill Moyers asked poet Martín Espada the same thing. “Well, for me, poetry is practical,” Espada said. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think it– poetry makes that practical contribution.”

I’d love to take Petri to Duke Ellington School of the Arts on the well-to-do side of town, where she’d see  a 10th grader using poetry to deal with her mother’s passing last year. I wonder how she’d feel about her thesis after watching a classroom of students fired up after reading a poem about the ill-treatment of a hit and run victim.

I wish she could hear those 10th graders calling America on her hypocrisies before writing their own poems in the hit and run victim’s voice—addressing the drivers who honked their horns, the detectives who swapped jokes above her, or the shaken witness who stole the crime scene spotlight. I’d turn to Petri and–imitating Espada’s voice–say, “You just saw poetry make ‘…the abstract concrete…the general specific and particular.’”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

I’d recommend the Post columnist shadow poet Patricia Smith on one of her school visits through Chicago. I’d like to see Petri’s reaction when Nicole asks Smith to help her remember her mother she lost to drug addiction.

I’d send Petri to Durham, NC, where Dr. Randall Horton brings poetry to a halfway house where he was once a resident. I could imagine Petri speechless, watching those men and women count haiku syllables on their fingers. She might even yell “Damn!” when a guy’s poem reminisces about a fine woman’s sundress that was “ghetto dandelion yellow.”

It’s obvious Alexandra Petri’s out of the loop. “The problem with her column is simple. It’s breathtakingly uninformed,” DC poet Joseph Ross wrote in a blog post, which listed a literary institution and contemporary local poets. Ross even offered to show Petri other places where Poetry lives in D.C. “Alexandra, let me take you to a poetry reading,” he wrote. “Let me introduce you to the poetry world in Washington, D.C., that I know. Maybe I’ll even give you a poetry book.”

And that’s nice, considering what every poet wanted to give Petri. Her column wasn’t just “breathtakingly uninformed”; it was offensive. The poets expressed this through the cyber beat down they gave Petri. I’m talking about angry comments posted to her column, an open letter with a reading list, and “irate tweets calling me ‘pretty [expletiving] stupid,’” Petri recalled in a follow-up column, retracting her initial thesis.

But a few thrown stones don’t stop the Church of Poetry from rejoicing, which brings me back to my high and my M.F.A. degree. I could go into what poetry did for me, but I’ve done that enough (plus, it’s on my “About” page). For those who don’t know, this Poetry Church is so funky the gospel wafts like cannabis clouds in a hotboxed car. We welcome nonbelievers to catch contact highs. There’s always room in the cipher.

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier) Curtis Crisler

Curtis Crisler’s unnamed speaker is a griot of sorts. His distant kin, fleeing from Jim Crow and southern domestic terrorism, joins the 5 million African Americans who decide to roll out.

But they aren’t the first to do so. Others left before them during the first Great Migration (1910 to 1930), which swept two-thirds of 1.6 million Black folks traveling alone or in small family groups toward New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.

The griot’s people ran with the second wave of migrants who, between 1940 and 1970, swell the Black population of those eight cities, and, like the earlier travelers, they’re determined to hold the industrial 20th century to its promises of jobs and opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest. A large number of them also surge through West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland.

Crisler calls this movement one about “Urban Midwestern Sensibility.” The poet, author and educator captures his griot’s journey and bends that history with the 1982 hit “Mama Used to Say” as the theme song in his forthcoming chapbook Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy that Finishing Line Press will release in December. (Preorder your copy here.)

The 18-poem collection’s garnered early praise through blurbs from two rising stars on the national literary scene. “True to its title, Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy bristles with music: an album in verse of coming up hard and finding a path to light,” writes Mitchell L. H. Douglas, author of Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem. “Curtis Crisler is both poet and DJ, spinning a playlist of parental wisdom in the guise of the prose poem. These are survival songs. Tune in and be moved.”

Ross Gay, author of Bringing the Shovel Down and Against Which, is just as moved. “Curtis Crisler’s Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy is magic in the way it makes heartbreak music,” Gay writes. “With its halting syntax and precise, twisting diction, with its conjuring of these exact voices…. What I mean is that my heart is jumping around like a kangaroo on account of how beautiful this book. Like I said—heartbreaking, yes. But music, even more.”

Soundtrack’s also half of a new collection Crisler’s currently writing. His other books include a mixed-genre novel (Dreamist), a children’s book (Tough Boy Sonatas), his debut poetry collection (Pulling Scabs, a Pushcart-nominated collection), and his chapbook (Spill, which won the 2008 Keyhole Chapbook Award from Keyhole Press).

(PHOTO: Finishing Line Press)

Soundtrack, his second chapbook, resulted from a two-year process of him watching his poems mature. Prior to that, Junior’s song “Mama Used to Say” kept looping in Crisler’s head. “It was intense,” he says. “I couldn’t shake it.”

That’s when he knew Soundtrack should be a book of prose poems. “I wanted a cadence to the poems that trailed off from the song….into the things that my mother actually would say,” says Crisler, who’s currently an assistant professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). “That was the epiphany for me. So I played with it as much as I could and let the process dictate the progress of the poems…I then went back and added and subtracted various ‘layerings’ to the poems.”

The outcome? “Prose poems that address a sporadic rhythm, and gives way to the reflection of a man’s life by using Junior’s song to connect to his mother, community, and past, all while seeing himself become a man in the process, as well as getting insight to the mother’s character,” Crisler says.

The titles in the table of contents’ first two sections reads like a list of “mother-isms” (“…fat meat’s greasy,” “…a hard head makes a soft. behind,” “…don’t eat nobody’s. chittlins,” “…boy, you ain’t gone worry me,” etc.).

Each of Soundtrack‘s three sections opens  with a song line from Junior’s “Mama Used to Say”. By italicizing his mom’s sayings, Crisler weaves maternal wisdom throughout the unnamed speaker’s coming-of-age tale. Take the poem “…you won’t understand what I’m telling you now, but one day you will:

…you won’t understand what i’m telling you now, but one day you will “move mountains. stomp mole hills. righteous glory born to. you from stellar backs. steel workers, postal workers, and soldiers garnered you titles in this. united states of e pluribus unum.” booker t. and dubois ain’t helping with these bills, and you eat a hell of a lot. listen now and hear me then. you need to learn to motivate. push the pulse, inspire. either matriculate or get job. but be more than one buck.

“Curtis’ work evolves from project to project, and now readers will get to experience this poet in a very intimate way,” says Randall Horton, author of Lingua Franca of Ninth Street and Definition of Place. He and Crisler met six years ago at Cave Canem’s week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent. “Curtis showed me the ropes around the campus my first year there,” he says.

Horton’s admired his friend’s work since. “I’m always excited to see what Curtis is doing next,” says the poet and editor, who worked with Willow Books to publish Crisler’s Pulling Scabs and Dreamist. Though he hasn’t read Soundtrack, Horton’s optimistic about the book and speculates it will echo. “I’m referring to a literary heritage of perhaps [Robert] Hayden or [Gwendolyn] Brooks, maybe [Sterling] Plumpp or [Lucille]  Clifton,” he says. “I expect to be left with an experience.”

(PHOTO: Etcy.com)

Junior’s song is an irony that hits Crisler close to home. While “Mama Used to Say” encouraged kids against rushing to get older, Crisler’s childhood forced him into adulthood when his single-mom took night classes to earn her high school diploma.

Latchkey kid is a term that goes back to World War II, when stay-at-home moms took up odd jobs to make ends meet while their husbands fought in the armed forces. The practice of leaving kids home alone in the daytime is now common for working parents who can’t afford childcare.

At 5 years old, Crisler was the little man of the house. “I could cook a basic breakfast,” the Gary, IN-native says. “I walked to school on my own and had a key to the house in my sock.”

And while most latchkey kids suffer from depression, low self-esteem and are easily influenced by peers, that experience made Crisler independent and self-reliant at a young age. “I had obligations…one was to be home to watch my younger sister,” he says.

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His then-basic culinary skills enabled him to fix his sister a sandwich when she was hungry. He even tucked her in and waited for his mom’s return before going to bed. “I know my mother believed in me, but I’m sure she worried until she got home as well,” Crisler recalls. “You had to contribute in a responsible way so that the family could function.” He held down the house until his aunt moved in with them.

That self-reliance and his mom made him a better husband and father. “She made sure I knew how to cook, shop, wash clothes, take care of my sisters, take care of our house, and take care of myself,” he says. “She was a bit of a handyman with certain home projects. I learned from her how to attend to family since my father wasn’t there.”

His mom, who raised three kids and her two sisters, gave him something else. “I was able to see a lot of my artistic self through her,” Crisler says, recalling that his mom modeled, acted, and did visual art.

She inspired him to write his first poem in 4th grade. “My mother would support us in anything we did, but she wanted us to show her that we were committed to our endeavors,” Crisler says. “When she saw that, she would be our biggest advocate.”

Her life also taught him that hard work earned respect. Crisler’s fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem, Soul Mountain, and a guest residency at Hamline University are testaments to his mom’s wisdom.

His work interested Allison Joseph, poetry editor at Crab Orchard Review and director of the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Congrats on the new chapbook!!!” she writes on Crisler’s Facebook wall. “Looking forward to reading it.”

Joseph’s still impressed with his earlier work. “Curtis Crisler’s poems are experimental but welcoming, funky intellectual rides that invite all to share in his scintillating view of our world,” according to her blurb for Pulling Scabs. “It’s always a delight and a surprise to see where a Curtis Crisler poem goes, and there is always gut-bucket substance beneath this poet’s flash and dazzle.”

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His hard work also earned him many awards including the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, an Indiana Arts Commission Grant, the Eric Hoffer Award, and a nomination for the Eliot Rosewater Award. A playwright adapted his poetry to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he’s published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies.

What drives Crisler once pushed William Stafford. In an interview with Chicago Review’s Peter Ellsworth, the late-poet said: “The voice I hear in my poems is my mother’s voice.” Those words ring true with the young poet. “That voice pushes me to be more than I am, or at least all that I can be,” says Crisler, who shows this in the poem “now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull”:

now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull. my bones. fatherhood. i’ve stepped into some soupy resistance. mama’s words are all on the soul of my blues. blue muddiness. i can’t define.

The motherly voice assures Crisler it’s OK for Soundtrack’s poems to surprise him. “I’m still learning from them,” he says. “I believe these poems have taken me to a place I wasn’t prepared to go.” He started with two poems. “I hadn’t planned on writing them.” But those poems insisted on making their way into the world.

That’s how Soundtrack sprouted from the germ of an idea. “Man, the creative process is crazy cool,” Crisler says. “It frustrates and burns and keeps you on your toes, but when it comes through, it comes through big time, if only from this latchkey boy’s perspective.”

The Residency and Immersion

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin grew up in Maine and has worked as a boxer and lobsterman before becoming a writer and Stonecoast MFA faculty member.

Jaed Coffin’s goal is to aim for the big idea when he’s working on a writing project, often immersing himself in his subjects’ worlds. And he didn’t expect anything less from his students, who he urged yesterday to do their subjects’ stories justice by giving readers the big picture.

There was a lot to take away from Coffin’s presentation YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS SH*T UP!: An Introduction to Immersion/Literary/Longform Journalism. Yesterday was also the second day of the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which started with a tour of the Stone House for first semester students by journalist and author Sam Smith, who spent his childhood summers living in the Casco Bay waterfront estate.

I came back this year as a fourth semester student, who for the last six months worked on my third semester project (a creative collaboration with a comic strip artist that produced a comic book) while starting a new job and promoting my debut poetry collection in addition to getting married.

And I’m still charged from Friday’s Flash Faculty Reading, where Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel WENCH, peeled our wigs back with a short story she hadn’t published yet. The award-winning writer, who’s also a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard, is guest faculty at this residency. I enjoyed talking to Perkins-Valdez about married life (she’s going on nine years) and appreciated her insights on parenting.

Just as priceless was my first day in the cross genre workshop Explorations in Masculinity, co-facilitated by David Anthony Durham and Jaed Coffin. What’s interesting is there are only two guys in this workshop of seven students. Yesterday, we started our workshop in a room at the Stone House, where we have all our workshops and presentations.

This grand estate is striking with its multiple stone porches and fireplaces. The beautiful stained glass, wood, and tile work are as breathtaking as the ocean view from each room. On the extensive grounds of the Stone House are rocky pathways to harbor vistas, nationally renowned heather gardens, and historically organic farmland.

I was glad that Durham and Coffin took the workshop to the deck behind the house, where our conversations flowed from different male archetypes presented in Twilight and Harry Potter, to the dominant-submissive theme in contemporary literature. We also talked about so-called traditional male types that over-populated action flicks. Coffin asked us if those guys even existed.

(PHOTO: Selectism) Gay Talese, author and pioneer of literary journalism.

That question about the truth was a great lead  up to Coffin’s presentation on literary journalism, or what he called narrative nonfiction. “To me, it’s the least pretentious term,” he said. It’s also a form of long journalism pioneered by writer Gay Talese, who wrote the most memorable profile of Frank Sinatra for Esquire more than four decades ago.

As the story goes, Talese came to  Los Angeles to profile Sinatra. “The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed,” according to Esquire’s editorial note. “So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself whenever he could.” This resulted in the 11,000-word article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” that Esquire published April 1966.

Coffin used the profile as a great example of  the three-part zoom functions used by literary journalists. At 1X (wide frame): the writer captures the subject’s environment, atmosphere, regionalism, culture, subculture, race, identity, and class. The writer zooms in to 2X (narrow focus), where they capture the subject’s home, community, family, past, genealogy, origins and lore. Then, at 3X (narrower focus), the writer zooms directly on the subject. At this focal point, the writer  captures the subject’s eyes, ears, speech, charms, patterns of behavior, clothing, and so on.

Talese does that throughout his profile of Sinatra. That long-form of journalism is defined by an Esquire editor as “a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.”

That struck a chord with Coffin, who at 18, knew he wanted to be a writer. At first, he tried his hand at fiction. “The first novel I tried to write [then] I got 25 pages into it and lost myself,” said the Stonecoast instructor, whose passion followed him from undergrad at New England’s Middlebury College through graduation, when he moved back home with his mom and took a job as a lobsterman while he worked on his writing. “I kept using reality as an amplified spring-board,” he said, to do the type of writing he wanted.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) A 21-year-old Jaed Coffin spent a summer in a Buddhist monastery.

Then the literary inertia pulled him to nonfiction when writing the truth became beneficial. “Most of the time truth is better than fiction,” Coffin said. “The social aspect of nonfiction is why I’m in the game. Nonfiction has this beautiful social element. You get to be out in the world.”

Coffin’s explorations took him from Brunswick, Maine, to his mother’s native village in Thailand, where he became a Buddhist monk after his junior year at Middlebury College.

He captured that experience in his memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants (Da Capo/Perseus), which is a tale of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging. According to the book jacket, it’s also a record of Coffin’s “time at the temple that rain season–receiving alms in the streets in saffron robes; bathing in the canals; learning to meditate in a mountaintop hut; and falling in love with Lek, a beautiful Thai woman who comes to represent the life he can have if he stays.”

The other benefits of writing nonfiction are just as alluring. “You make a lot of money and get to hang out with people,” Coffin said. “You also get to use every skill that fiction writers and poets use.” He’s currently working those skills in Roughhouse Friday (Riverhead/Penguin), his forthcoming book about the year he fought as the middleweight champion of a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska.

Though he loves the adventure, Coffin advised it’s not a prerequisite to writing narrative nonfiction. “Do not feel like, because you have a domestic life, you cannot do literary journalism,” he said. “Reality, on its own terms, is strange and full of conflict. You just have to be patient enough to dig up the conflict.”

Blackbird Poetry Festival

(IMAGE: HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College)

This time of year, Poetry gets a lot of attention from the mainstream public. News organizations around the country that would otherwise snub her appearance play paparazzi, recording her whereabouts and goings-on.

Thousands of businesses and non-profits celebrate her vital place in American culture through readings and festivals, through book displays and workshops.

And for a month, she’s the life of the party. The national attention’s enough to make her think the country takes her seriously, that she’s more than a national obligation the Academy of American Poets started in 1996. The month-long festivities continue until April’s final days before the public moves on to the next celebration, before her limelight dims enough for certain publishers, booksellers and literary organizations to still recognize her.

This year, Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo aren’t letting Poetry go out like that. They’re announcing her presence with a bang April 26 at the 4th annual Blackbird Poetry Festival. Come celebrate at the “Poetry In Harmony” Coffee House reading by Michael Cirelli (a National Poetry Slam individual finalist, winning the finals in both San Francisco and Berkeley), Kim Addonizio (considered “one of our nation’s most provocative and edgy poets”), Naomi Ayala (poet, freelance writer, and consultant), and a performances by musical group Mother Ruckus (Sahffi and Gayle Danley). (Click the link for performer’s bios.)

There will also be readings by faculty and students from Howard Community College, where it’s all going down. Check out the workshops and watch out for the “Poetry Police,” who’re citing anyone caught without poetry on hand for National Poem in Your Pocket Day.

(IMAGE: Blackbird Festival) Clockwise form top left: Kim Addonizio, Mother Ruckus, Naomi Ayala, Michael Cirelli.

The day’s events are mostly free, except for the Mother Ruckus performance. (Tickets will be $15 general admission, $10 for seniors and students with ID and open to the public, others for students only. Get your tickets online by clicking here.)

The festival’s schedule is as follows:

9:30 – 10:30 Naomi Ayala speaks at Howard County School System (HCPSS) Professional Development Day Session I

10:40 – 11:40 Naomi Ayala speaks at HCPSS Prof. Dev. Day Session II

10:00  Poetry Police start to patrol HCC at campus looking for National Poem in Your Pocket Day violations

11:00 – 12:20 Kim Addonizio meets with HCC’s Creative Writing Class (closed)

11:00 – 12:20 Michael Cirelli meets with students and community (open and free)

2:30 – 4:30    Readings by: Naomi Ayala, Michael Cirelli, Kim Addonizio and regional poets, HCC students and faculty (open and free)

7:00 Doors open for “Poetry in Harmony,” a coffeehouse-styled reading

7:30 – 9:30 Readings by Michael Cirelli and Kim Addonizio, and a performance by musical group Mother Ruckus, which includes performance poet Gayle Danley and songstress Sahffi. ($15, $10 for seniors and for students with an id)

The Ear Hustler (flash fiction)

(PHOTO: stfudii)

“YOU LOOK GOOD,” the guy tells the woman. They’re standing behind a teacher in a coffee shop where the audio selection shifts from jazz to acoustic world music to blue grass, then back to jazz. Grounded coffee beans claim the space with their fragrant presence.

The guy has close-cropped white hair. He’s wearing a gray sports blazer over tan khaki pants. He’s much older than the woman, who’s dressed as if she’s heading toward the gym or as if she’s just finished jogging and came inside to cool off, having had the sun bake her complexion a pumpkin hue when it seemed to scream its heat over everything uncovered.

The teacher taps his fingers on the countertop. He took his students out for a writing exercise. He told them where to set up, and figured he had enough time to grab a drink and get back before his students noticed him missing. He needed something cold for his dry throat made dryer by the 78 degrees. He watches the couple, who, at first, appears to be father and daughter—that is, until he sees how the old man is holding her shoulders.

The woman looks no younger than 25, yet something about the touch still seems inappropriate—the old man rubbing her arms and squeezing her flesh, how his touches linger. That she doesn’t shrug him off says she’s comfortable with this, that he’s done this before. It says she even enjoys this as he leans back and slowly rolls his appraising gaze over her new body. “How much weight did you lose?” he asks.

A woman making drinks tells the teacher his Green Tea frappuccino is ready. She tops it off with whip cream while the teacher smiles like the young woman who tells the old man, “I lost thirty pounds.” The teacher pops the straw through its paper sheath; he slides it through the dome cover and into his drink, which a student will later say looks like guacamole and sour cream, stunning the teacher with her imagery.

But at the moment, the teacher sips the gooey goodness of milk, ice, and green tea powder. The old man asks the young woman, “How did you lose the weight?” The teacher nearly chokes from her response: “I got divorced.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, the weather was so good, I took my poetry students (only two showed up for class) out to Wisconsin Avenue NW in DC’s Georgetown. Their assignment was to people watch–observe how strangers interacted with one another. The students were supposed to also observe the strangers’ body language, and then create a flash fiction story. I took part in the exercise and wrote the story below.

(PHOTO: Peter Dworin/ NYTimes)

A BIKE MESSENGER WHIZZES BY, running late for a delivery she should have made an hour ago. She has one more time for a client to complain before she’s fired. She flies by the sound of Bengal music wafting from the red Honda Civic that waits for the traffic light to turn green.

She passes the cyclist whose rolled up yoga mat is in her bike’s rear basket rack. She passes a guy late for an interview. He’s got a folder with copies of his résumé. I should have worn a watch, he thinks. He puts his face against the glass panes of an art shop, and then bolts when the store’s clock tells him what time it is.

The courier passes the woman rolling her bag along. I don’t know how I let the sales lady talk me into buying this, she thinks. The pink and green rose pattern is so ugly. The courier passes a woman on the phone outside Long & Foster Realtors. Then the courier’s gone before a green Saturn whips a U-turn ahead of the silver Audi station wagon that’s about to pounce the intersection on the green light. The Saturn turns before the officer in the tinted out black Denali with strobe lights notices. It turns in front of the old guy who’s waiting for the cross walk signal. He shakes his head at what he thinks was a careless maneuver.

The old guy’s wearing black dress slacks under a mud-colored Parka and lily pad green winter hat. I should’ve checked the weather before I left home, he thinks. I’m burning up out here. It’s 65 degrees, for Christ’s sake. He looks around and spots a writer and two girls. Who’s that guy scribbling in his book? the old guy continues. What are those two girls doing up on that wall?

The old guy shoves the thought from his head when he’s nearly trampled by three students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts skateboarding down Wisconsin Avenue. One of them is a junior. He’s brave enough to wave at a teacher from his department, as if the junior didn’t have an art block class to attend. The skate boarders avoid the woman pushing a stroller up the sidewalk. The woman’s a young mother—she couldn’t be older than 21.

(PHOTO: Travel Smart)

The mother snaps her head away from the couple who both look as though they stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad. Supercuts! the young mother thinks. That’s where they got their hair cut!

The couple laughs and points at a bald man in the passing pick-up truck. Pick-up truck dude’s smoking a cigarette and wearing a button-up shirt with too many medals to be a civilian. He stares at the writer and two girls hanging out on the wall. I fought in Vietnam for what—so some hippies could sit on some wall instead of working and write about nothing.

He shakes his head. And people like them wonder why republicans want to cut funding for the arts, he continues. Well, I’m all for it. Stop wasting that money and put it towards something useful, like war. But those comments are lost on the writer, who’s preoccupied with another old guy walking up Wisconsin Avenue in a biker’s jacket that probably fit him three decades ago. Now, the jacket grabs at his shoulders and elbows like officers subduing a perp on the run.

The writer glances up at his students staring at what’s across the street. To where, he doesn’t know or care. His attention’s on the woman in black tights and a light sweater. Every step she takes, her athletic legs flex like a whisper that teases him for looking—that is, until he remembers his fiancée at home. Next to her, the woman in black tights is Medusa. Every time he’s around his fiancée he pinches himself. That his fiancée is still there after the pinch, that he hasn’t awaken from what feels like a dream, only proves how lucky he is. The teacher’s jarred from his thoughts when one of his two students asks, “Mr. King, are we going to do this until five o’clock?”

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